By DAVID RISING (AP) – 1 hour ago, September 15,2009
BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq Tuesday on a previously unannounced mission to show the White House remains focused on the Iraq war despite military pullbacks and increased attention on Afghanistan.
The trip is Biden's third this year and is a chance for him to meet with the full range of Iraqi leaders both in Baghdad's central government and those of the Kurdish region in the northeast of the country, where violence continues to flare.
Biden also is to meet with members of the United Nations mission in the country during the three-day visit, U.S. officials said.
Shortly after his arrival, Biden was briefed by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill.
Biden, who oversees Iraq policy for the Obama administration, made his last visit to the country on July 4 to spend the U.S. Independence Day with the troops. During that trip, he also met with his son, Beau, who is an Army captain serving in Iraq.
Iraq's government hopes that on this visit the U.S. vice president will have suggestions on how to ease tension with Syria, which Iraq's prime minister has accused of harboring Saddam Hussein loyalists wanted in recent bombings that killed more than 100 people.
Iraqi leaders also plan to discuss their preparations for January's national elections and persistent violence in the country's north, said an Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
As the number of bombings and other attacks declines elsewhere in Iraq, the north remains a battleground between Sunni Arab extremists and Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Biden was to hold talks Wednesday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials that were expected to focus on recent tensions between Iraq and Syria, January general elections and the violence in the north.
Al-Maliki has accused Syria of harboring Saddam Hussein loyalists suspected in deadly bombings in Baghdad last month and has provided a list of names. He has asked the U.N. Security Council to set up a tribunal to investigate the attacks.
Syria says the Iraqi government has failed to provide proof, rejecting extradition requests.
Biden's visit comes just before senior officials from the countries, possibly the two foreign ministers, are to meet in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday in an effort to defuse the crisis.
A Turkish-mediated meeting last week in Cairo failed to make any headway after Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem of Syria and Hoshyar Zebari had a heated exchange and traded accusations. Zebari accused Syria of fueling sectarian issues in Iraq and supporting terrorism and violence that threaten its security. Syrian denied the charges.
The accusations are widely seen as an attempt by al-Maliki, a Shiite, to shore up his position before the Jan. 16 elections after the increase in violence in recent months deeply hurt his security credentials. The spat with Syria has also isolated him among Iraqi politicians, just weeks after al-Maliki's Shiite backers dumped him from their political grouping ahead of the elections.
The United States, which has 130,000 troops in Iraq, has remained largely silent about al-Maliki's accusations.
During his last visit, Biden expressed concern that Arab-Kurdish tensions in northern Iraq might erupt into violence. At the time, all sides acknowledged the importance of moving forward on disputes over internal boundaries, the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and integrating Sunni fighters who fought with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq into official security services.
There were signs of friction during the July visit, however, after Biden urged Iraqis to do more to bring the country's deeply divided factions together and offered U.S. help — but warned that assistance may not be forthcoming if the country reverts to ethnic and sectarian violence.
That prompted a strong reply from the Iraqi government, which said the U.S. should not be intervening in an "internal issue."
Many Iraqis still identify Biden with his earlier advocacy of splitting up the country along sectarian lines even though the Obama administration rejects that position.
Biden's spokesman tried to smooth things over after the visit, saying the talks with al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders were "both positive and productive." Biden has also subsequently met with the Iraqi prime minister in Washington.
After a series of horrific bombings in August that targeted non-Arab minorities in the north of the country Odierno proposed deploying American troops alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces to help increase security.
He suggested the deployment of the U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish forces could start in Ninevah province, where Mosul is located, before being extended to other restive areas.
No decision has yet been announced on the proposal, but it could come up during Biden's talks with al-Maliki.
Odierno has said he does not expect the proposal would affect the timeline calling for U.S. combat forces to leave the country by the end of August 2010 and for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.